10 National Championships. What does that say about Geno? Rich Elliott takes a look.
By Rich Elliott
It is becoming more and more difficult for Geno Auriemma to try to put into words what he has accomplished during his magical journey as the head coach of the UConn women’s basketball team. He is uncomfortable talking about himself. He would much rather talk the success of his players or how much the members of his coaching staff have meant to the success of the program.
But when a coach achieves the level of success that Auriemma has over the years the questions will always be there for him to field. He further minted his legendary status Tuesday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa when the Huskies won their 10th national championship. Auriemma, humble as can be, initially put his head down when asked about the feat. However, his players had no problem praising their leader following a 63-53 victory over Notre Dame.
``I think what makes Coach Auriemma tick is that he’s extremely competitive, but at the same time he wants to help his players,” two-time national Player of the Year and three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart said. ``He’s constantly thinking, ‘How can I make Breanna Stewart better? How can I make Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck better?’ He knows that’s what we want. Do I think of him as a legend? Yeah. I think it’s impossible not to given the path he has paved at Connecticut and what he’s done for women’s basketball. How could he not be a legend?’’
This is a coach who has done it his way since he was hired in 1985. He once benched stars Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters in a 74-53 loss at Seton Hall Jan. 5, 1994 because they were not playing up to the level he expects every day. Sending a message was more important than earning a win that day.
And a year later when the Huskies were re-watching the NCAA championship game in Auriemma’s hotel suite in Minneapolis, Minn. just hours after beating Tennessee 70-61 to win their first title, he suddenly started to treat it like a film session. He was rewinding the tape, pointing out things the players could have done better in certain sequences. His quest for perfection never ceases.
``We go back to what’s my fondest memory of the championship, that is it,’’ said Lobo, a current ESPN analyst and the 1995 National Player of the Year. ``Just being in his room.’’
Auriemma, who was inducted into the Women’s College Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, is a combined 917-134 (.873) in 30 seasons at UConn. He is the NCAA all-time leader in winning percentage and one of six coaches to win 900 games.
The Huskies have averaged 30.6 wins per season during Auriemma’s reign. There have been 20 30-win seasons, five undefeated seasons and they have not lost back-to-back games in a span of 810 games since losing the final two games of the 1992-93 season.
Auriemma is also 103-17 (.858) in the NCAA tournament, including 10-0 in the tournament final. The Huskies have made 16 Final Four appearances, including a current record eight straight trips, and 27 straight tournament appearances overall.
This type of success was something that was purely unimaginable 20 years ago.
``We came home after winning the championship (in 1995) and all those people were at the airport and lining the streets and we’re like, `What is going on,’’’ Lobo said. ``You’re 20-years-old. You have no idea what’s going on at that moment. So you can’t ever project that to what it might be like.’’
UConn has won an NCAA record-tying three straight national championships for the second time in team history (2002-04). Tennessee is the only other team that has accomplished this feat (1996-98).
In earning a 10th national championship, Auriemma vaults into a tie with legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden for the most all-time in college basketball.
New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, who won six championships as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and five as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, is the only other basketball coach with at least 10 championships on his resume.
``Well, none of those other guys coached any bad teams with bad players on them,’’ Auriemma said. ``So we all have that in common. We all coached some of the most iconic players to play the game of basketball. So I think we have that as the thread that runs through all three. Any time you're in a championship situation, any time you're trying to win any tournament, but especially the national championship, so many things have to go right and you have to have players that make those plays that make it go right. To do that 10 times in a row, to win 10 and be 10‑0 in national championship games is … Again, it's too big for me to think about it. It's too much. Too much.’’
Auriemma has led UConn to five national championships in the past seven seasons, eight in the last 14 and 10 in the last 21 overall. Tennessee (eight) is the lone program that has won more than two championships in the 34-year history of the NCAA tournament.
And, aside from the Huskies and the Lady Vols, there have been only 12 teams that have won at least one championship – Baylor, Louisiana Tech, Stanford and USC have captured two; Maryland, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Old Dominion, Purdue, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech have each won once.
It has been just an absolutely mind-numbing run. And with Stewart, All-American Moriah Jefferson and soon-to-be All-American Morgan Tuck returning next season, UConn will be the favorite to become the first team to win four straight national championships.
``He deserves to be in his own conversation with women’s basketball,’’ Lobo said. ``It’s hard when you compare different sports. But last year I was thinking … I was up watching one of their practices thinking I would’ve liked to have been alive when John Wooden was doing what he was doing and I’d love to watch some of his practices. So I need to come up here more because this is kind of the same thing.
``We’re privileged to watch what he’s done and the legacy that he’s building. To be part of it for all these years in terms of covering it and watching it, it’s really pretty amazing. And it wasn’t until last year where I really thought if it that way like, `This is really cool. I’m witnessing history. Not only a part of it for one year, but now to see something that’s really great.’’’
Fellow ESPN analyst and former Tennessee star Kara Lawson was on the losing end in the title game against the Huskies in 2000 and 2003. She said the only thing similar to what Auriemma has accomplished to this point is the run assembled by North Carolina women’s soccer coach and National Soccer Hall of Famer Anson Dorrance from 1982-2000.
The Tar Heels won the national championship in 16 out of 19 seasons during this span. They won nine straight from 1986-1994, three straight from 1982-84 and twice won two straight (1996-97, 1999-2000).
``It’s hard because it’s incomplete,’’ Lawson said when asked where Auriemma’s place in the history of the sport is at this point. ``I feel like I say this a lot, but I feel we’re (at the Final Four) together every year. What this program has done since 2009 is something that we have not seen in our sport. Not just winning, but the gap that exists between UConn and the rest of the country. I think they’ve only lost two championships since ’09. Three undefeated (seasons) and this is one loss. And then you look at next year they’re the favorite. There’s a lot that needs to happen. You’ve got to stay injury-free and all that. But they’re the favorite.
``It’s incomplete because I don’t know how long this is going to go and this is not something that we’ve seen before. If you go broader and I think of other sports the only team I can think of is North Carolina soccer. That was the only team I could think of. And what Anson did there I think was through the 80’s and 90’s. Anson’s the only one that I could say, `Yeah, that’s comparable.’ That’s why I say it’s incomplete because I think we’re in the midst of something.’’
There are critics that will downgrade what Auriemma has accomplished because it is women’s college basketball, a sport that lacks depth at the top. They will say that he is successful because he regularly signs the best players.
Yet, the truth of the matter is that there are a host of teams around the country that also have a plethora of high school All-Americans and still are unable to achieve even similar results. And at this point in his career, Auriemma is hardly concerned with how his legendary success is mentioned from a historical perspective.
``Whichever way they want to mention it, whichever way they want to acknowledge it,’’ Auriemma said. ``Whichever way anybody wants to put it on a pedestal or keep it somewhere else. I said this the other day to people … We're not real good in this country about appreciating just people that are good. We always have to compare. We don't appreciate Stewie. We have to compare her to somebody playing in the NBA or somebody playing college basketball. I go through that with our Olympic team. Our Olympic team is the best team in the history of the Olympics. We won five straight gold medals. But because we travel with the greatest basketball players in the world, when you make a comparison, you always come up short.
``So you’ve kind of got to appreciate it in its own element and say, `OK, well, relative to their peers, those guys are really, really good.’ Because if we don’t, if we start relegating it, and we go by what’s the most important sport in the country, the NFL, Bill Belichick is the only coach worth a (expletive) right now. Everybody else is just trying to catch up to him. But every other coach that you mentioned, whether it's Phil Jackson, Coach K, Anson Dorrance down in North Carolina, when you accomplish something that's really hard to accomplish, you should be proud of yourself. And how people want to compare you to anybody else, that’s their prerogative. Some people are going to say this is really, really great and historic, an unbelievable achievement, and some people will pooh‑pooh it. So as you can tell by some of my comments in the last couple of weeks, I’ve lost the ability to care, give a damn what people think.’’